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Why do Catholic altars have relics?
Relics became integrated in the Catholic Church at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 when Church authorities passed a law stating that every church should have a relic at its altar.
A relic is, strictly speaking, the mortal remains of a saint and, in a broad sense, the term also includes any object that has been in contact with the saints.
The Church has taken stringent measures to ensure the proper preservation and veneration of relics. In its Code of Canon Law (#1190 — §1) the prohibition against selling any sacred relic is expressed in the code’s strongest language (nefas est), meaning “it is absolutely forbidden.” §2 states, “Relics of great significance and other relics honored with great reverence by the people cannot be alienated validly in any matter or transferred permanently without the permission of the Apostolic See.”
The code also supports the proper place for relics in our Catholic practice: Canon 1237– §1. “Fixed altars must be dedicated, and movable altars must be dedicated or blessed, according to the rites prescribed in the liturgical books.” §2. “The ancient tradition of placing relics of martyrs or other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved, according to the norms given in the liturgical books.” (This was a practice widespread since the fourth century.)
Some of the most famous Catholic relics are the Shroud of Turin, the True Cross, the Veil of Veronica and the Scala Santa.
Thanks for asking about relics. Anyone with a question about our faith, please call me at 573-378-9220.
See you at Mass,
Deacon Paul Poulter